Lawyers could learn a few things about conveying compassion from Gregory Peck’s onscreen portrayal of Atticus Finch in the classic movie To Kill A Mockingbird.
Negotiation skills feature throughout 12 Angry Men, and if you want some insight into keen lawyerly timing, look no further than the 1957 movie, Witness for the Prosecution. That film, based on a short story by Agatha Christie, follows the trial of a man accused of murder and his attorney’s efforts to uncover the truth.
It is true that onscreen lawyers often are portrayed as over the top and find themselves in implausible situations. But some films offer useful insights into the skills lawyers need to be successful, according to a new book by Kelly Lynn Anders, director of communications and diversity at Creighton University School of Law. Advocacy to Zealousness: Learning Lawyering Skills From Classic Films used 26 movies to illustrate different lawyering skills.
Anders, who holds a J.D. from Pepperdine University School of Law, noted that it is not uncommon for law professors to show clips from movies to their classes. But there are few comprehensive resources to help lawyers use films to develop their professional skills, she said.
Anders viewed 327 films while researching the book. “Each film has been carefully (if not painstakingly) chosen for its representation of particular skills, as well as for its contributions to the promotion of increased diversity in the legal profession through depictions of diverse characters,” Anders wrote in the book’s introduction.
Some of the films included will be familiar to most people, including the three mentioned above plus Judgment at Nuremberg and Inherit the Wind. Others are more obscure. The 1949 film Pinky deals with racism in law enforcement and the courts, and offers lessons on dependability, Anders wrote. The Paradine Case is a 1947 courtroom drama set in England that highlights the value of loyalty. Salesman is a 1969 documentary about door-to-door Bible salesmen that offers insight into marketing.
“I love film history,” Anders said in a telephone interview. “Professionalism and skills training is also a big interest of mine, and I thought using films to teach those skills would be an interesting angle.”
One of her favorite movies is 1942’s The Talk of The Town, in which a suspected arsonist played by Cary Grant hides out in the attic of a law professor who gets pulled into the case, she said. That movie illustrates the skill of flexibility.
Don’t expect to find mention of modern favorites like Legally Blonde or My Cousin Vinny. Anders included only films made before the Motion Picture Association of America established its modern rating system during the 1960s. Movies of the earlier era tend to lack graphic violence, offensive language and nudity, making them more appropriate for the classroom, she wrote. Plus, many young lawyers and law students have never seen those classic films.
“People assume older films will be boring or really clean-cut, but they’re really not,” she said. “There is some racy material that is conveyed in a subtle way.”